What happened to crop circles? There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when you couldn’t stroll through a sci-fi field without encountering the odd patterns pressed into the crop. From The X-Files and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs to alarmed media reports from rural spots in North America, the UK, Russia, Japan, and India, crop circles were a supposedly mysterious phenomenon that some believed were the products of extraterrestrial activities. But now in 2023 we rarely hear about them. So what happened?
The history of a mystery
Some things are trickier to explain than others while some things have multiple competing explanations that don’t quite fit and so investigations continue. However, crop circles are not among them. They are a type of landscape art that was made by mundane agents – humans.
This perspective is not popular among devoted believers who still regard crop circles as evidence of alien visitations, but there has not been any scientific evidence to support these fringe assertions. Instead, what we have is a specific history that is difficult to deny and pretty funny. But let’s not jump to the finish all at once. Let’s explore the story as it emerged.
To be sure, the history of crop circles is not limited to the last years of the 20th century. In 1678, similar markings in cereal crops appeared in some fields in Hertfordshire, England, that were blamed on the Devil. Although some regard this as the first recorded instance of crop circles, it has been pointed out that the stalks of the Hertfordshire crops were cut into shape, rather than bent – an important characteristic of modern crop circles.
In 1880, the editor of Nature published a letter from John Rand Capron, that described several “circular spots” that appeared in a field that he believed were caused by cyclonic winds.
By the second half of the 20th century, crop circles were popping up more frequently and receiving more attention. In 1963, Sir Patrick Moore, the English astronomer, described a crater he saw in a field in Wiltshire, England, that may have been caused by a meteor impact. Interestingly, some of the surrounding fields exhibited spiral formations in the crops, which Moore explained as likely caused by “violent air currents produced by the falling body”. This he asserted, could be attested to by the fact that all the patterns in the wheat led to the crater.
But while Moore was offering a more natural explanation, other reports were starting to mix these markings with more unusual sources. In the same decade, similar circles appeared in Australian news reports and were described as evidence of UFO landings. At the same time, the fields in Warminster, Wiltshire, become a hotspot for the “sky watchers” UFO spotters who circulated ideas about crop circles and “saucer nests”. Of course, none of their circles were ever photographed.
Interest in crop circles was now growing, but the enthusiasm for the phenomenon and all things alien reached a new level in the late 1970s, when Jesse Marcel, a retired Air Force officer, gave an interview about the alleged 1947 Roswell incident. According to Marcel, there was something alien hidden in the New Mexico desert.
The stage was very much set for some cunning exploitation. Enter the pranksters.
The hoax heard around the world
In 1976, during the "hay" day of the alien excitement (yes, that's a crop pun), two Englishmen were having a pint one evening and came up with a plan. Doug Bower and Dave Chorley started using planks of wood with ropes attached to them to stamp circles into crops in the fields near Conholt, the border between Hampshire and Wiltshire. To do so, they held the ropes up while stepping on the planks, applying enough pressure to bend the stalks but not necessarily break them.
Bower and Chorley later claimed to have created more than 200 patterns over the years. In 1991, the scamps confessed to their pranks in a story called “Men who conned the world” which was published by the British newspaper Today. The newspaper even verified their claims by examining photos of their work.
In a time before social media, their prank went “viral” and was soon being replicated by others across the world, not dissimilar to the 2020 monolith craze. Despite claims by UFO fans that these patterns could not be made by humans (claims that still occur today), it turns out that all you need is a bit of wood and some rope to make a good job of it. Gradually, interest in the phenomenon waned and ceased to be credible evidence of extraterrestrials.
Today, crop circles are often created with amazing patterns that are a form of landscape art. Although we now know exactly how they are created, many believers continue to ignore the evidence.